Tonight's episode is all hip-hop, which fills me with both excitement and unease. Hip-hop was a thrilling alternate musical universe for me growing up, but seeing as it's been quasi-scientifically proven that hip-hop has pretty much sucked since around 1995, I shudder to think what kind of pablum we're going to be subjected to. Ironically, mainstream hip-hop nowadays will probably be more relatively palatable than the awful stuff you'll hear coming from bedroom studios and egomaniacal producers on a local hip-hop station, while mainstream hip-hop in the '80s was saccharine compared to the amazing innovations being made on a nearly weekly basis "on the streets." I suspect that there won't be much Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul tonight.
Also, hip-hop implies rapping, and some groups are simply going to be less equipped for that, which, if considered a mandatory skill, would be the first objectively unfair criterion so far this season. Every group has survived by playing to their own strengths, even if it means straying from the obvious expectations of a theme to do so, so while there's certainly some amazing flow tonight, the judges are apparently willing to let some groups adapt and not embarrass themselves. If they didn't, we would have a nightmare scenario that this poster fears, but I didn't think it would come to that (either literally or in principle), because the judges enjoy hearing groups take songs (not necessarily recreations of recordings) and perform them in their comfort zones. Case in point: um, everything Afro-Blue has ever done. More cases in point come later tonight, as groups make melodies out of popular raps, and as two groups completely change up the genre of a song, to their benefit.
Betcha didn't know that some people don't approve of rap on The Sing-Off at all! I will also bet that their heads exploded during tonight's episode.
Tonight's episode is slightly different in structure, as they split the top 8 into two brackets of 4, and then have the bottom group from each bracket compete in a brief "sing off" (get it? get it?!?!) to avoid elimination. I guess the producers still haven't figured out a way to fit eight groups on the stage to allow a true elimination (or at least a true non-arbitrary bottom two). You'd think they could afford more choral risers, right?
Yay, a group number! It's amazing how much more I look forward to the group numbers on this show than the group numbers on American Idol, which are invariably atrocious.
B.O.B. & Bruno Mars's "Nothin' on You" is one of my favorite songs of this young century, so I'm hoping they make it work. The performance is fantastic and worth watching, but I'll distill it into bullet points:
• [?] (of Vocal Point) is a great swing-crooner soloist, but sounds so very white in this context. Perhaps Amy (of Delilah), hanging off his shoulder, is too distracting. Yes. Very distracting. Sorry, what were we talking about?
• Myke (of Urban Method) is born to do this.
• The color coding of the groups is out of control. Are they afraid we'll get confused and not be able to tell them apart during the competition? Because that's this woman's job.
• Ruby Amanfu (of The Collective) appeals to me vocally for the first time.
• Pretty much all of the women left on the show are being used as female halves of couples in the opening blocking, so when the parade begins from upstage, it's rainin' men, hallelujah! There wasn't a single fake gay couple that they could've put out there? Or would that have been too much for Standards & Practices? (Isn't the NBC logo basically a rainbow? They should be ashamed of themselves.)
• Sideways flat-billed baseball caps do not necessarily make entire groups of men appear to be authentic hip-hop artists, but rather make them look like confused Little Leaguers. Not as goofy, though, as teal shirts and fedoras.
In The Aires's video package, Clark Moore says something a bit ominous: "The struggle with hip-hop is that there are really only, like, four chords, so there's not much to work with." My issues: 1) Four chords per song? In all of the hip-hop repertoire? Really? Man, they really do need some Quest in their lives. 2) Even if we accept that statement at face value, Afro-Blue manages to bring unexpected harmonies to everything they do every single time, so whatever.
Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write: The Aires's song will be Flo Rida's "Club Can't Handle Me". (Wow.) Michael as usual takes over the stage, but [?]'s rapping (more like chanting on the tonic, like in Rebecca Black's "Friday"), while speedy, is somehow stilted. I love the texture in the second chorus; it's super smooth, the blend is killer underneath staccato eights, and who doesn't love a good iii7? The voicings (or perhaps the balance) in the second verse is a little bari-heavy. And then finally… an all-out shout chorus the likes of which we haven't seen this season. And it's awesome, and gets more awesome as they stack on octaves until the very end. Those 20 seconds are worth a clip:
(Wait, did I write "second verse" for the first time this season? Amazing what those extra 30 seconds per song can do!)
At this point, Nick Lachey (or his writers) makes a really good point about what's happening tonight: "Before the polished sound of today's hip-hop hits, it all began on streetcorner with an MC and a beatboxer. Tonight our groups are honoring that tradition as they create all-vocal versions of hip-hop chart-toppers." This really is full-circle, isn't it? I actually got goosebumps from that. (Watch the first five minutes of Brown Sugar if you need a condensed explanation.)
If Afro-Blue can't make a mind-blowing arrangement out of "Killing Me Softly" (whether Roberta Flack's or The Fugees' version), no one can. And they do. The beginning had me worried; these extra 30 seconds that the groups get this week mean they can either improve the arc of the song (as the Aires did), or in Afro-Blue's case they can take strange chances like, well, performing for 30 seconds without harmonies beyond three parts. Thankfully the kick drum is strong, and there are some tasty trios underneath the intro. And then we get to the end of the verse, and as usual Afro-Blue makes the sun come out indoors. The chords on "kill-ling" after "with his words" are the good kind of twisty, Reggie's bass goes to the good kind of unexpected places, and the bridge seems like a whole Take-6-song worth of two-fiving and tritone subs. The breakdown is little all over the place but somehow comes back together with more twistiness, the right-to-left pan of them jamming out makes for amazing television (it's like the end of the Sha Na Na show but way hipper), and they throw in some extra hey's and ho's* that sound like a party over here. Interestingly, they end on an add2 (and a low one at that), which would normally be beneath them, but hey, if you've got a blend like this, flaunt it.
During a break at work today, I watched this clip about five times. Not their absolute best tune this season-- that honor goes to "I Wanna Dance With Somebody", which is the only Sing-Off track I've ever bought on iTunes-- but inferiority is relative in a group this solid.
I have no previous familiarity with "Give Me Everything" (o/p/b Pitbull and Ne-Yo), so I won't have any pre-conceived notions of the song. And within ten seconds of The Collective's performance, I'm disliking these badly voice-led V7 to I cadences. The first verse (is it a verse?) has some interesting minor textures (if not entirely family-friendly lyrics), and then the first proper chorus is really thin, with Ruby gamely attempting a moving rhythmic background by herself. The second verse has more going on again, with a progression supporting a great, goofy rap by David. (The voicings underneath remind me of, God help me, "Somebody's Eyes" from Footloose.) The third verse is the same as the first, which is okay as the first was pretty good. The whole thing gels pretty well by the end, although it's not the most powerful thing we've heard from them. Ending on a V, while odd sounding to me, is preferable to the way some other groups land on the tonic and let the solo go off a cadenza. Shawn Stockman notes that the groove seemed to come in and out; although there were some really strong moments, overall it wasn't entirely strong, and "entirely strong" is the kind of performance you'd expect in the top 8 of a 16-group competition. ("Rocketeer" and the end of "Hold On I'm Coming" from round 2 (episode 4) were better.) As with Sonos, you can't spend the song worrying when you'd rather be listening and enjoying.
As we already saw in NBC's heart-tugging promos, Vocal Point is going to balladize Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You", which bucks the "hip-hop must be hip-hop" trend, and they thereby boldly take an option that's been sitting in plain sight this whole time. In the video package, [?] says "Because we want to make this song reverent… we wanted to keep it 'us' instead of trying to be something we're not." Thank you. The risk is that they basically have to write a melody for the verses, but what I'm hearing in the package is pretty good.
This is quite beautiful through the first verse and chorus; the block chords are blending well and [?]'s solo (emotional as it is for him) is really smooth and mature. But they make a distracting choice of V7 at the end of the chorus ("missing you"), which is an R&B no-no, and collides with the trio to boot. Why didn't they have the background block stay on IV and just have the bass go up to V, creating the always awesome V9sus, which would've a) been more authentic, and b) made more sense with the trio already hitting the 4, 6 (melody) & root of V on "miss", which fall into V9sus chord, or actually the even cooler V13sus? *sigh*
As they get to the bridge, we're now hearing new music, as in music they wrote. And it's really good! It's in relative minor, with a turnaround almost worthy of Afro-Blue, and a catchy new melody for lyrics that I usually don't listen too because I've always found Puff Daddy's flow rather flow-less. And the transition into the last verse-- a bVII-to-I take on Faith Evans' lines-- is fantastic. This is really, really impressive music-making (despite the return of the novice V7), and I'm tempted to consider this a pass to the next round. The other three groups were so antsy about being able to pull off hip-hop, and then Vocal Point pretty much wrote a whole new goddam song, and a good one to boot. Holy moley.
And see? The judges loved it. What is everybody (on the show and at the links above) freaking out about? The tricky part is… who owns the publishing rights to this? Somebody download this from iTunes and tell me what the copyright situation on this is.
The Collective definitely is the weakest link of this bracket, and they're put on the bottom to attempt a save later. I don't see them pulling their weight against any of the remaining four, alas.
* I stand by my apostrophes.
[To be continued in the next posting.]
About the author:
WARREN BLOOM is a vegetarian libertarian feminist capitalist musician educator. He was a founding member of mixed pop group Spur Of The Moment at Brandeis Univ., sang with Jazz Vocal 2 at the Univ. of Miami (Best College Jazz Choir runner-up, 1997 DownBeat awards), and musical-directed the summer pro group The Hyannis Sound. Since returning home to New York, he's been musical director and/or bass and/or VP for numerous a-cappella projects in NYC, including pop/jazz quintet Doo*Wa*Zoo (Best Jazz Song nominee, 2000 CARAs), pop/rock sextet Dobsonfly (heard in the film The Rules of Attraction) and rock/R&B septet Invisible Men (Audience Favorite, 2005 New York Harmony Sweepstakes; 4 out of 5 on RARB). He served as a staff arranger for an early incarnation of Total Vocal, and was MD, co-arranger and sound tech for Minimum Wage's Blue Code Ringo at the 2002 NYC Fringe Festival, and co-arranger for their 2007 off-Broadway production. He spent a year as a composer/lyricist in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, but left to be director of instrumental music at Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan. He currently teaches general music (K-5) at the Robert Fulton School (P.S. 8) in Brooklyn Heights, and has spent nine summers teaching musical theater (middle & high school) at the Usdan Center for the Arts in Huntington, L.I. "On the side" he's judged 17 ICCA and ICHSA shows since 2002 (including both 2006 finals), and is a freelance voiceover artist, live sound tech and music copyist. He holds music degrees from Brandeis Univ., the Univ. of Miami and CUNY Hunter College. He's from the beigest place in the world, and currently resides with his cutie and her cat in the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The Sing-Off, episode 3-1 (Sept. 19), 1st hour: round 1, bracket 1
The Sing-Off, episode 3-1 (Sept. 19), 2nd hour: round 1, bracket 2
The Sing-Off, episode 3-2 (Sept. 26), 1st hour: round 1, bracket 3:
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-2 (Sept. 26), 2nd Hour: Round 1, Bracket 4
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-3 (Oct. 3): round 2, bracket 1 (1st hour)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-3 (Oct. 3): Round 2, Bracket 1 (2nd Hour)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, episode 3-4 (Oct. 10): round 2, bracket 2 (1st hour)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-4 (Oct. 10): round 2, bracket 2 (2nd hour)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (1st hour)
5th Judge: The Sing-Off, Episode 3-5 (Oct. 17): Top 10 (2nd hour)